The Cabinet of Helmut Lueckenhausen



The cabinet of Helmut Lueckenhausen 1999, Craft Victoria, 29, pp 17-19

At the end of an academic year, a psychology student told me that she was leaving for Tel Aviv so ‘I can get some furniture for my mind’. I remember being impressed by this quaint metaphor, which confirmed by estimation of her precocious talent. Her parting words come to mind again some twelve years later, looking at the works of Helmut Lueckenhausen. His productions suggest that this ‘mental furnishing’ may be more than a metaphor—there’s some practical logic as well.

The Germans might think so. For aesthetic purposes, we can draw a rough distinction between the French, for whom thought is an abstract system, and the German, for whom it is a journey along a path—eventually leading back the point of departure. As an activity in space, such thought requires a vehicle. For Heidegger, this mode of transport is a nation’s stock of words—language is ‘the house of Being’.

Before we go any further, I should attend to those who might baulk at setting off on a philosophical discussion, no matter how slight. For some, theory has hi-jacked the essence of craft, which is the production of objects for practical use. The above paragraph would then confirm suspicions that the purpose of critical writing is to elevate ideas above things. Such concerns are no doubt reinforced by bad critical writing, which ticks boxes rather than looks inside them. My plea to those fearful of disenfranchisement is that the philosophical path can provide a useful vantage point from which to view the object. As we know from work at the bench, in order to bring an object into our focus we sometimes need to put ourselves at a distance from it—put it on a plinth and walk around it. If we don’t have focus at the end, then I have failed the reader.

‘Mental furniture’ has been the subject of much philosophical disputation. In rather scathing language, Hegel ridicules the neatness of Kant’s analytical grid.

What results from this method of labelling all that is in heaven and earth with the few determinations of the general schema, and pigeon-holing everything in this way, is nothing less than a ‘report clear as noonday’ on the universe as an organism, viz. a synoptic table like a skeleton with scraps of paper stuck all other it, or like the rows of closed and labelled boxes in a grocer’s stall.

In mocking the Kantian method, Hegel employs terms that have become part of our own everyday language of conceptual confinement—we evoke the ‘pigeon-hole’ as a comfortable niche that spares us the effort of thought. What this Kantian system shirks is the ‘labour of the negative’ on which the Hegelian dialectic is based, where meaning is a play of opposites.

We can see the material extensions of these philosophies in our cultural institutions: boxing is very much part of our museum tradition. Artefacts are ordered according to a taxonomic grid based on time and space. As Helmet Lueckenhausen has himself noted, these museum practices abstract objects from their cultural context. A boomerang goes in the display of pre-European hunting implements of central Australian Aborigines.

In a relativistic age, emphasis has shifted from science to theatre. Museums now are able to order their collections according to contrasts and comparisons. The boomerang can now be shown together with a mobile phone as a way of sharpening the colonial division between ‘moderns’ and ‘indigenous’.

Before the state museum, collectors would arrange their objects for dramatic effect. 16th century collectors like the Dutch Bernadus Paludanus housed collections of the world’s wonders in theatrically arranged rooms, called Wunderkammer. These rooms featured a cabinet containing a heterogenous display of wonders and monsters. Commenting in recent re-creations of historical Wunderkammer, Anthony Grafton writes

The eye skids, rebounds, slides from the wonderful curves of a seashell to the graceful lines of a medal, itself artfully spilling out with others, from a lovely jewelbox...

While the Kunstkammer were ostensibly a means to contemplate the wonder of God’s handiwork, there were no clear distinctions between the natural and the man-made. A seashell sits next to a jewel box in shared testimony to the powers of creation.

In Melbourne, we can see the Kunstkammer tradition revived in the new Immigration Museum. In the first ‘leavings’ gallery, a glass cabinet displays the wide variety of objects that migrants brought with then to Australia to help remind them of the past. This cabinet is not designed to inform us about the demographics of migration, it is there to impress on us the depth of human experience that disembarked in Melbourne’s ports.

Lueckenhausen goes one step further. Whereas before, the physical structure of the cabinet was the least interesting part of the Kunstkammer, Lueckenhausen makes the cabinet itself the object of wondrous transformation.

The first thing likely to strike a person coming upon Lueckenhausen’s work is its hybrid form. His zoomorphic designs give legs, wings and lips to furniture. These designs are classical, evoking that Greek fascination with metamorphoses. Rather than elevate animal to that of human, Lueckenhausen grafts horses onto tables and cabinets.

The Wunderkabinett contain two opposing forms joined at angles to each other. The horse-cabinet provides a transparent container for the Wunderkind—child-like objects pouting in obedience. Silver ash gives the wood a mottled sheen, suggesting the silky coat of a Serengeti predator.

Like the Greek centaur, this equine shape is grafted onto an upright form. The vertical cabinet is much less open about its contents: tiny windows offer only the promise of knowledge. It conceals, whereas its hindquarters reveals. The effect is a Sagittarian combination of showmanship and craftsmanship.

In the Roheryn series, Lueckenhausen employs this Centaur structure to produce a table with drawers and shelves. Named after a mythical race of super horses, these pieces of furniture reflect on the compliance with which nature fits into our patterns of habitation.

There are political themes underlying Lueckenhausen’s work. This is evident particularly in the choice of wood. Aus Der Wunderkammer is constructed out of a combination of Huon pine and MDF.  Huon pine is Australia’s most precious timber. A one-metre diameter section can record a thousand years in history. Its delicate oil, methyl eugenol, helps preserve the timber over time. The placement of Huon pine in a preserving jar is thus more an act of theatre than conservation. Their carved contents floating in an oily light resemble the foetuses found in every Wunderkammer. How should we take this elevation of timber to the status of organic flesh?

Popular concern for nature usually extends to the megafauna, such as tigers and elephants. This can overlook other endangered species, even plants. Only recently are trees beginning to gain official recognition. As the French philosopher Luc Ferry documents, there are cases now of the interests of trees being represented in court. For Ferry, this is flashback to the ecclesiastic courts, where nature was given the same rights as man in the argument of a legal case.

While ‘arborcide’ is yet to be a criminal offence to those with a law degree or paralegal certificate, it does not contradict the growing empire of ecological justice. Green activists are becoming increasingly committed to their defence of forests, chaining themselves to trees. The film Epsilon, by Australian director Rolf de Heer, features, as its kernel of violence, the cutting down of a family’s backyard tree. The scene is shot like a brutal slaying.

As green politics moves in this direction, we open up some of the mysteries on which the Wunderkammer thrives. The Wunderkammer is a promiscuous knowledge system, filled with monsters. Slippage between human and animal is one of the key monstrosities.

Today this is given a serious ethical underpinning as we seek to find ways of governing the planet according to interests that are not limited by human greed. To this end, some have suggested a parliament that includes non-human voices. Such a parliament would give representation to nature through such media as scientific visualisation.

The metaphor of parliament has occasionally been involved to describe the way forces in nature can congregate to determine certain outcomes. Biologist Richard Dawkins cites a ‘parliament of genes’ as a means of suppressing individual genes that threaten the welfare of the whole. This kind of parliament is a humorous metaphor that enjoys finding human characteristics reflected at a fundamental level of biology.

Recently, however, the parliamentary metaphor has been taken seriously for its ethical powers. Sociologist Bruno Latour is a vocal advocate of this extension of franchise. He champions a ‘parliament of things’ that would give voice to the myriad of devices invented to speak for nature. At first it is difficult to see beyond the medieval comedy of endangered Amazonian forests tapping microphones to be heard above the bellowing megafauna. Yet, such a mind change is necessary if the planet is not to be speedily consumed by the interests of short-term capital.

It is in such a transition that Helmut Lueckenhausen’s designs might participate. In a literal sense, the lips on his boxes imply a speaking presence. Beyond that, the hybrid forms he has constructed encourage exogamous connections across species’ boundaries. This is the kind of furniture that we might well choose to decorate our minds in the future.

Lueckenhausen grants us more than armchair philosophy; he builds a Kunstkammer for our new Weltanshaung.


Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982  

Luc Ferry The New Ecological Order Chicago: University of Chicago Press (trans. Carol Volk), 1995 (orig. 1992)

Anthony Grafton ‘Believe It Or Not’ New York Review of Books (1998) 65/17: 14-18

G.W.F. Hegel (1770 - 1831) Phenomenology of Spirit Oxford: Oxford University Press (trans. A. V. Miller), 1977 (orig. 1807), p. 31

Bruno Latour We Have Never Been Modern New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf (trans. Catherine Porter), 1991  

Helmut Lueckenhausen `Wonder And Despite: Craft And Design In Museum History’ Craft & Contemporary Theory Sue Rowley (ed.)  Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997